by Pam Vukelic

Kids grow up and have lives of their own. Holidays aren’t as predictable as they once were. But that doesn’t have to mean you can’t keep traditions alive.

Perhaps I should have suspected something was up when our daughter, Meredith, invited us to a home-cooked meal at her condo last Wednesday. Cooking isn’t really her thing… Yet, anyway… She’s more of an HGTV girl than a Food Network foodie.

Things started to come into focus, however, when she appeared at the door of my classroom Wednesday afternoon and said she had a surprise. Our son, Reed, came in to the room behind her with flowers and a big hug for me. Dressed in his ACUs (army combat uniform) and just off the plane from Louisville, KY, he was quite an amazing sight! And, that, Meredith explained, was the impetus for dinner at her house that night.

It turns out that Reed’s friend, Roger Krueger, had made arrangements for Reed to participate in Hunting Dakota with Roosevelt. It is a remarkable event that combines hunting and conservation, honors military personnel, and raises money to help pay expenses for persons with cancer. In its fourth year this fall, the hunters have access to areas where Teddy Roosevelt hunted during his visits to North Dakota from 1883 to 1887. Through gifts from some generous donors, Roger and his co-chair, Jon Hanson, were able to afford Reed this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Having Reed come home was especially sweet since our plans to be together as a family for Thanksgiving had been dashed by the military’s need to send Reed to school in Missouri for two months beginning the end of October. He’ll be back home at Ft. Knox in time to be present for the birth of his and Mollie’s first child, and then will deploy to Afghanistan. So time together, whenever and however we can get it, is precious. And traditions, an important element in families, are sometimes improvised.

Child development experts espouse the value of traditions in child rearing. Even for infants, a ritual or routine makes bedtime and bath time less problematic. For older children, knowing that some parts of life are predictable is calming and beneficial. A weekly family game night, first day of school routine, and activities associated with holidays are all occasions children look forward to repeating. Traditions create memories, strengthen family ties, raise awareness of ethnic backgrounds, and build lasting bonds.

Since it’s not going to be possible for us to be together for Thanksgiving or Christmas this year, I decided to bump up our traditional Christmas eve dish to be our last meal before Reed left for home. Coupled with the bottling of Jim’s latest batch of homemade wine, we managed to spend some memorable good time together.

Our standard Christmas eve meal features an old extension homemaker’s recipe of my mother’s called Crispy Cashew Chicken. It’s a far cry from the oyster stew and lutefisk we had as kids, but much more palatable to this generation of young ’uns. Instead of stirring in cashews just prior to serving, the typical procedure for cashew chicken, these cashews are finely chopped to serve as coating before the frying takes place. The result is a crunchy, rich chicken that can be used as an appetizer or as, in our case, the entrée.

And, by the way, the from-scratch spaghetti sauce Meredith made for our Wednesday evening meal was scrumptious. Perhaps she’s watching more Mario Batali than I know. It’s good enough to become part of a new tradition.

Crispy Cashew Chicken

1/4 c cornstarch

2 t salt

1 t sugar

1/4 c unsweetened pineapple juice (or dry sherry)

2 egg whites, lightly beaten

1 3/4 c cashews, finely chopped

2 whole chicken breasts, cut into 1½ inch cubes

Oil for frying (peanut oil is a good choice)

In a small bowl, combine the cornstarch, salt, sugar, sherry, and egg whites. Dip chicken pieces into egg white mixture then roll in cashews. Place on cooling rack. When all pieces are dipped, heat oil in a wok to 375 degrees. Fry 4-6 pieces of chicken at a time until cooked through and golden brown on all sides. Serve with Asian Pineapple Sauce.

Asian Pineapple Sauce

3/4 c unsweetened pineapple juice

2 t cornstarch

2 T soy sauce

1 T honey

1 t ginger

1/4 t dry mustard

1 clove garlic, minced

2 T butter

Mix 1 T of the pineapple juice with the cornstarch. Add to all remaining ingredients in a small saucepan, heat slowly until mixture comes to a boil and mixture has thickened slightly. Serve warm as a side to Crispy Cashew Chicken.